Here’s some advice from me to myself.  I need to follow it more often.

Dear self,

When you have to have a conversation you’re not confident about, rehearse it in your head ahead of time.  Good advice, yes?

But we all remember the standard comedy scene wherein the love-smitten protagonist wants to call the love interest, and rehearses what to say over and over.  Then he flubs the call anyway, because the love interest fails to follow the script.

Or maybe, not so humorously, you’ve had the two-hour phone call with a depressed friend, and somewhere near the end of the call your friend says, “And no one ever talks with me.”  At which point you think to yourself, “What have I just spent two hours doing?”  You realize that, to your friend, you don’t count, because you don’t fit into the script of people she wants to be talking with.

In times of conflict, scripts can help us remember to say the important things without getting distracted or derailed by fear or anger.  But the same scripts can extenuate the conflict, because when we’re following our inner script, we stop listening.  We already know how our opponent is going to respond, and we’re just waiting for them to finish before we go on to our next line.

So what to do?

If you’re a person who relies on a script (and you stay awake at night arguing with people in your head, so you know you are), try something else.  If you’re afraid you’ll forget what you wanted to say, or get bullied onto a sidetrack, make a list of “talking points” for yourself.  Just the points.  And then set it aside, and simply converse.  Say something.  Then listen to what is said in response.  And then respond to that.  Try it.  If it worries you too much, try it in a situation that doesn’t matter so desperately to you.  Practice.

If you’re on the other side of the table, and you realize the person you’re talking with is following a script, you can do several things.  The most important thing you can do is stop the scene.  First and easiest, simply ask the person to repeat what they just said.  Sometimes this, all by itself, is enough to bump them off their interior track into the light of your realtime conversation.  If not, take the next step and ask them to rephrase.  Perhaps, even if they can’t hear you, they can begin to hear themselves.

When this fails — and it often will, sadly enough — you can do two things.  You can confront the person, tell them what they’re doing.  Or you can stop the conversation and withdraw.  Sometimes you have to do both.  Don’t be afraid.

Above all, don’t be afraid.